Published in: Roads and trails of the Europeanism in the Balkans, Sofia: Institute of Balkan Studies, Veliko Turnovo: Faber, 2014, pp.390-395.
In his documentary film Europolis: the Town of the Delta, the director Kostadin Bonev resurrected the curious story of the Romanian town Sulina situated in the delta of Danube. Many years before the European Union to be founded, this city epitomized the European dream. It was possible because after the Crimean War’s end in 1856, Sulina was granted ‘free town’ status under the rule of European commission, French was the official language, and the town became the third largest port in the region symbolically defined as ‘the little Venice of the Orient’.
In 1933, in the period of its most glorious ascent, the commander of the Romanian town Sulina – Eugeniu Botez alias Jean Bart – wrote his novel Europolis in which he predicted the gradual decline of this unique city. Bonev’s work was perceived by majority of cineastes as a dark metaphor for the inevitable future of the European political and economic project but, in fact the above-mentioned film is much more than anxious presentiment; it is an important visual document analyzing in depth the different historical moments of Sulina’s existence.
Actually Kostadin Bonev was tempted long ago by the idea for a radical transformation of the Balkans’ traditional representation demonstrated in local and foreign movies. The author not only sought a new iconic conception thereby abstaining from the stereotypical images, but above all, he succeeded in identifying new unexpected topics associated with the South East Europe that effectively undermined the Eurocentric system of knowledge in whose narrow discursive frameworks the Balkans continue to be imagined.
As early as 1990 when the film Dream Hunters appeared, this director began to take a constant interest in exploring similar phenomena at a regional level – for instance, in the movie quoted, Bonev paid tribute to the artistic heritage created by the Balkan naïve painters. The obvious reference in the title to probably the most popular novel written by Milorad Pavić – Dictionary of Khasars (1984), naturally, was not made by accident. It additionally emphasized the message about the shared ‘togetherness’ in the naïve painters’ artistic methods and emotional disposition. The narrative focused on their fantastic pictures, assembled as if from pieces of variegated dreams, indirectly changes the outlook in terms of the region through their intentional conceptualization together with the Western European representatives of this artistic current.
In Europolis: the Town of the Delta, the remote city lighthouse that has not already navigated ships in the night, is turned into the cinematic text’s emblem by the filmmaker. The harbor which has sheltered plenty of trade vessels in the past, nowadays is a dreary place where only poor fish boats enter. Despite of the dark hopelessness in the words of all of the respondents interviewed, the film does not provoke depressing feelings in spectator’s mind because of its incredible poetic spirit and colourful depictions of Sulina – great achievement realized thanks to the two cameramen Konstantin Zankov and Dimiter Mitov. The beautiful presence of Danube and the subtle nostalgic treatment in which emotional spectrum the city history was revealed by the director, undoubtedly made substantial contribution to its extraordinary impact on the audience.
A significant part of the screen narrative is devoted to the period of communism in Sulina when started its gradual decline: in early 40-ies the symptoms were still invisible but the town was almost desolated during the last stage of Çaușescu’s epoch. Somehow, the Bulgarian filmmaker’s work alludes – in terms of its vigorous expressiveness and power of suggestions – to Theo Angelopoulos Ulysses’ Gaze, especially the representation of the communist system collapse. Kostadin Bonev is prone to alternate the objective flow of information with the deeply intimate experiences of his personages and carefully maintains a balance between them. Moreover, he managed to catch the specific Zeitgeist of Sulina (from the period of its grandeur to its gloomy days today) and after that to turn it into an authentic vital image.
It is important to say, that Kostadin Bonev’s film should be considered as a key component in building up a cinematic meta-narrative about Sulina together with the two Romanian titles on the same topic: documentary Porto franco (2000) by Anca Damian and feature movie Europolis by Corneliu Gheorghiţa[i] that appeared in the cinema theatres in 2010. I am very happy to note that Romanian film critic Monika Felea in her article Sulina in Romanian and Bulgarian movies wrote that among quoted three films, the Austro-Bulgarian coproduction was the best one[ii]. Further, I would like to add that it happened as a result of the long-lasting profound research done by the scriptwriter Vladi Kirov in the period of pre-production but also because of the peculiar warmth and emotional commitment of his interpretation. Romanian spectator feels it and probably is surprised how it is possible foreigners, precisely speaking neighbours, to represent so excitedly a topic from his/her national history. However, the real paradox is linked with the (ab)use of the film under consideration. Europolis: the Town of the Delta was awarded numerous prizes all over the world. In larger extent, this international admission granted was a consequence of misunderstanding: the movie has been perceived quite synonymously as a terrible anticipation about upcoming European end. Jean Bart deliberately or not, constructed a vivid mythologem that emerges immediately in every economic and political crisis and – transforms itself in accordance with the concrete historical moment. However, films are not guilty for the revival of the stereotypes but their contextual uses and abuses respectively. The most illustrative example for the discursive ‘trap’ of the context was Milcho Manchevski’s Before the Rain (1995). I would like to believe that scholars in the field of Film Studies will give chance to Kostadin Bonev’s work to be studied and conceptualized beyond the easy associations because the movie is much more than a bright metaphor and fully deserves its deep analytical reading.